So what actually is hearing loss?

January 21, 2020


Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition reported by American adults, coming in after arthritis and heart disease. There are roughly 65 million Americans who report some level of hearing loss, about 20% of the population. Of these 65 million, only about 19 million have actually done something about their hearing loss.  In a previous post, we discussed how untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline are linked, so why do so few people with hearing loss not do something about it as soon as it’s diagnosed? Many folks don’t realize what exactly hearing loss entails, so that’s what we’ll be going over in this post.


Hearing loss is caused by something going wrong anywhere from the outer ear all the way up to the auditory portions of the brain. This can be anything from too much earwax to a middle ear infection to what is called a central processing disorder. These different locations are what categorizes a hearing loss as conductive, sensorineural, or mixed.


A conductive hearing loss occurs when there is something interfering with the passage of sound through the outer or middle ear. This includes wax buildup, foreign bodies, ear infections, ruptured eardrums, and even disarticulation or osteoporosis of the bones of the middle ear. The good news is that these hearing losses are often treatable by a physician or audiologist with medication, surgery, or time. The bad news is that these only account for about 15% of the hearing losses reported.


A sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or along the pathway up to the brain. This can occur with health issues, age, noise, physical trauma, or even strong medications, among other causes. This kind of hearing loss has been called “nerve deafness” in the past, and is usually permanent. Typically, this type of hearing loss is caused when there is damage specifically to the hair cells in the inner ear. While sensorineural hearing loss may be permanent, it can be treated (not cured)with devices such as hearing aids, personal FM systems, or surgeries like a bone-anchored hearing aid or cochlear implant. This is the most common type of hearing loss, accounting for nearly 80-85% of cases reported. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural.


Hearing loss can be described in many ways, but my favorite (and the most accurate, in my opinion) is comparing it to a piano with some keys missing. When the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged, they may bend, crack, or break off entirely. This causes us to lose certain tones, or “keys.” High frequency cells are closest to the front of the inner ear, so they are typically the ones to go first. With these “keys” gone, you’ll be able to hear some things, but sometimes a particular frequency is just…missing. You can still “hear the music,” but it won’t sound quite right. As hearing loss progresses, more and more “keys” break and an amplification device is often all that can bring back a semblance of better hearing.


If you’re unsure about your hearing, if you know you’re struggling and want to know why, or if you just think your ears may be plugged with wax, give us a call at (541) 228-9233 to set up a consultation or hearing exam with one of our doctors. We are open from 9-5, Monday through Friday and can often fit appointments in the same or following week.


Fun Hearing Fact:  Roosters have built-in hearing protection! Because a roosters’ crow averages around 100 decibels, these birds would damage their hearing incredibly quickly. Evolution to the rescue! When a rooster crows, their beak opens all the way. This action causes the external auditory canal to be closed off, effectively plugging their ears and protecting them from the volume!

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Audiology Professionals

Audiology Professionals